Category: Jews in America

Traditional Jewish institutions must seek guidance from creative young leaders, and some have begun to do so. Young Jews are finding ways to be Jewish outside of traditional Jewish institutions, but that does not mean we have to battle for who controls Jewish life….
We need to cultivate this spirit of openness and exchange between new efforts and traditional Jewish institutions. Both are important for the renaissance. While there is exuberant energy outside the established Jewish community, there are tremendous financial, structural, and human resources in our large institutions. These resources can, and should, be used to educate and empower our youth. While change may happen more quickly in new efforts, existing organizations are capable of making a significant difference in Jewish life if they are willing to adapt to the conditions of the twenty-first century. They need to reach out to young people and invite their ideas and their leadership.

Edgar M. Bronfman and Beth Zasloff, Hope, Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008), 167-168.


The problem with the whole idea of “affiliated” and “unaffiliated” is that it depends on an outdated model for Jewish community. The fact that young Jews are not affiliating in the old-fashioned way indicates there is something wrong with our institutions, not that there is something wrong with our youth. We have to let go of old ways of defining what it means to be an involved Jew and look to the kind of involvement that young Jews themselves seek. It takes some imagination to understand that the decline of Jewish institutions does not necessarily mean the decline of Judaism. Our question should not be “How can we get unaffiliated Jews to affiliate?” but “How can we inspire young Jews to understand Judaism as important for their own lives and for the world?” We should not be concerned with keeping Jewish institutions alive, but with keeping Judaism alive.
Simply because young Jews are not involved in the same way that their elders were does not mean that they are completely disengaged from Jewish life. While they may stay away from synagogues or Jewish Community Centers, they are clearly interested in Judaism. … They want to be Jewish, but on their own terms, as well they should.

Edgar M. Bronfman and Beth Zasloff, Hope, Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008), 157-158.

Only with hindsight can we see that, by the 1960s, there were hints of the dramatic changes that were to take place in American Judaism in the following decades. For the most part, the immense transformation of Reform into a movement of considerable ritual and its effort to grapple with the presence of intermarried couples and nontraditional families was barely visible even by the middle of the 1960s. The demands of Conservative Jews for a strong statement of what the branch believes and for gender equality, both flashpoints of the 197os, were barely discussed in 1965. And, among the Orthodox, even in the 1960s, the rigorous observance that, beginning in the 1970s, would characterize so many children of the moderate Orthodox of the 1940s and 1950s was still under the surface. Right up to the Six-Day War of 1967 and even beyond, in some ways, little had changed from earlier decades. But momentous transformations were just around the corner.

Marc Lee Raphael, The Synagogue in America: A Short History (New York & London: New York University Press, 2011), 168.

Intermarriage is often blamed for the decline in Judaism and in the Jewish population in North America. But the problem is that that Jews are falling in love with non-Jews, but that they aren’t falling in love with Judaism.

Edgar M. Bronfman and Beth Zasloff, Hope, Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008), 29.

The focus of rabbinical school training has often been on how we can attract more Jews to Judaism. But the secret is this: Jews are attracted to Judaism — the unadulterated, complex and nuanced, powerful Jewish tradition. We just don’t have enough teachers out there who can speak their language and transmit the beauty and intricacy of Jewish tradition to those hungry for some meaning in their lives. We have been working so hard to pull people back from complete repudiation of Judaism — or worse, apathy — that we don’t know how to meet the demand of those finally interested in the conversation and looking to own it themselves.

Elie Kaunfer, “The Real Crisis in American Judaism”, The Jewish Week (7 April 2010), 14.

What is growing today is “nondenominationalism”, the increasing number of Jews who call themselves seculars, cultural Jews, or “just Jewish”. Just as significant numbers of those raised as Catholics and Protestants now define themselves as seculars and an increasing number of voters call themselves “Independents”, so, too, the number of Jews raised in one of the four branches, but not identifying with any of them, is increasing. The number of adult Jews who would not identify themselves with one of the sectors increased from 20 to 27 percent from 1990 to 2000, and the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey of 2007 found that the number of Jews following the practice continued to grow. Thus, many worry that Jews, especially those of Generation X, have abandoned community for a host of more individual alternatives. These alternatives have, in common, a profound interest in the self and its redemption and in one’s own spiritual journey and personal fulfillment.

Marc Lee Raphael, The Synagogue in America: A Short History (New York & London: New York University Press, 2011), 204-205.

American Judaism is in crisis. But it isn’t the crisis that mainstream American Jewish leaders would have you believe. It is at once much better and much worse.

The false crisis — declining Jewish continuity, caused by assimilation and an intermarriage rate of 52 percent — has become the rallying cry of institutional Judaism. But fundamentally, it is a red herring. The real crisis is one of meaning and engagement. For the first time in centuries, two Jews can marry each other and have Jewish children without any connection to Jewish heritage, wisdom or tradition.

Part of the problem is that there are very few places that offer Jews an opportunity to experience the power and mystery of Jewish tradition firsthand. Even people who are in-married by and large have little connection to Torah, Jewish practice and values. They are dependent on others to translate Judaism for them, and they trudge to High Holiday services to receive the requisite “Be good!” sermons, only to return to their lives unchallenged and unchanged.

They have been sold a world in which Judaism is a bunch of platitudes, at best matching their existing modern liberal values (but adding nothing beyond what they already know), and at worst completely irrelevant to the struggles they experience day to day. Who can blame these Jews for disengaging from Judaism?

This is the legacy of American Judaism in the 21st century — a Judaism that has been undersold and watered down. It is a Judaism where those who know its beauty are often unable or unwilling to connect to the larger Jewish community, and those on the front lines of the welcome wagon to Judaism have little skill or facility with Jewish texts to elucidate the beauty to others. People want deep meaning and connection, but they move through life thinking of Judaism’s contribution to the world as “Seinfeld” and guilt. Many would be shocked to find out that Judaism has vigorous debates about the most central existential problems facing people today.

Elie Kaunfer, “The Real Crisis in American Judaism”, The Jewish Week (7 April 2010), 1, 12.

When Jews left communities such as Lawndale in Chicago or the near east side in Columbus, Ohio, and moved to suburbs either inside or outside the city, they usually abandoned their synagogues (just as white Christians abandoned their churches). Of course, there were exceptions. As the black population exploded in the Hyde Park-Kenwood area of Chicago in the 1940s and 19505, K.A.M. made a commitment to remain in the neighborhood and worked vigorously to create a fifty-fifty balance of whites and blacks. Rabbi Jacob J. Weinstein could claim, at the end of the 1950s, that “this temple was the single most effective anchorage in holding the white people here.” This was no easy task, as he also noted in a Yom Kippur sermon, for the “movement to the suburbs is, in the framework of our social and economic mores, almost as natural and instinctive as the flight of the birds to Capistrano.” And, in postwar Philadelphia, rather than flee the city, Mikve Israel and Rodeph Shalom reinvented themselves and remained in the city center as their congregants (and other synagogues) left North Philadelphia for the northern Philadelphia suburbs and beyond the city limits. Such congregations, however, were the exception.

Most abandoned synagogues became black churches, and Jews, in their new communities, either built new buildings with the same synagogue name as the old or started over with new synagogues with new names.

Marc Lee Raphael, The Synagogue in America: A Short History (New York & London: New York University Press, 2011), 125.

Children become “bilingual,” Katz Miller contends, the way that they might in a home where more than one language is spoken. But often what really happens in homes where two languages are spoken is that children are semi-lingual in both, unable to sustain a robust conversation in either.

Erica Brown, “Part-Time Judaism”, 2013-2014: The Year Gone By…The Year Ahead, A Special Supplement to the Florida Jewish Journal and the New York Jewish Week (27 December 2013), 7.

Ordained rabbis were rare before mid-century. The first arrived in Baltimore, in 1840, and even after they began to come over from Europe, congregations frequently used laymen or minimally trained leaders for the basic ritual services, such as reading the liturgy, providing music for worship, and chanting the Scriptures, as well as for running the synagogue or supervising the dietary regulations (especially for meat). When rabbis (or, as they were sometimes called, especially when they were not ordained, ministers or reverends) cantors (hazzanim), whether trained or not, were hired by these reforming congregations, they were usually given, in writing, the synagogue’s expectations about how they would lead (reading or singing or both) the liturgy, how frequently they would deliver sermons, in which language they would deliver them, their obligations with respect to life-cycle events such as confirmation ceremonies, weddings, and funerals (including compensation), their responsibilities with the choir, which ages they would teach, and even the precise order of the liturgy. At Rodeph Shalom, for example, the Ritual Committee instructed the service leader to begin the Friday-evening service with L’chu n’ran’na (Come let us sing) and then gave sentence-by-sentence orders. Shaarai Shomayim, a small synagogue in Lancaster, Pennsylvania (with an 1855 German constitution), hired its first ordained rabbi, Morris Ungerleider, in 1884 as “Chasan, Minister, Teacher, and Schochet.” Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation, in 1857, hired the Reverend S. Berman as “chasan, Shochet, and Shammes,” and twelve years later it sought someone who “can perform the duties of Chasan, teacher, and Shochet,” is “capable of teaching in the Hebrew, German, and English languages,” and could deliver sermons. The larger the congregation, that is, the greater the budget, the more likely these roles would be divided up among a rabbi, a cantor, a ritual slaughterer, a teacher, and a sexton.

In Atlanta, Abraham Jaffa, shochet, mohel, and hazan – slaughtered chickens in the rear of his home. Washington Hebrew Congregation, in the district of Columbia, hired two salaried officials in 1867, one to serve as lecturer and the other to serve as hazan or reader and teacher. In 1871, the congregation replaced the two two with one man, Michael Goldberg, “reader and teacher,” and explained to him that it no longer wanted sermons. He was to “read” the service, “keep” the religious school (twice during the week and on Sunday), and “educate” a choir, but he was not to preach during the Sabbath worship service. At the same time as the congregation was steadily introducing reforms, it returned to a centuries-old European tradition of eschewing weekly sermons and, instead, hiring someone to preach on occasional festivals and holy days.

Marc Lee Raphael, The Synagogue in America: A Short History (New York & London: New York University Press, 2011), 35-36.